When someone says “the North Pole”, there are a number of immediate associations that most people make, including bitter cold, oil reserves, Santa Claus, and a few other things, depending on your age and interests.
The reality of the North Pole is actually quite a bit more complicated, and while oil, ice, and Christmas legends are present (in one way or another), the North Pole probably isn’t what you imagine.
Which North Pole Are You At?
The name “North Pole” suggests a single point, but in fact, there are a number of North Poles, depending on your perspective. There is the geographic north pole, where all the lines of latitude (on manmade maps) converge, forming the actual “top of the world”. There is also the instantaneous north pole, which changes based on the Earth’s famous “wobble”, and is defined as the point where the planet’s rotational axis meets the surface of the Earth.
The more “scientific” north poles are the magnetic and geomagnetic north poles. The magnetic pole is the point where Earth’s magnetic field is completely vertical, while the geomagnetic pole is an approximation based on the magnetic field of Earth as though it were a basic magnet, or dipole. In truth, the magnetic field is much more complicated than a simple N–S bar magnet, and the magnetic north pole actually shifts every day.
What Does it Look Like?
Unlike the South Pole, which sits on top of a huge land mass (Antarctica) at an average elevation of 7,500 feet, the North Pole is a relatively thin sheet of Arctic ice, an average of one foot above sea level. For this reason, the North Pole is notably warmer than the South Pole, as it soaks up the warmth from Arctic Ocean around and beneath it. This sheet of ice expands and shrinks every year during the changing of the seasons, but as global warming continues to take its toll, the ice sheet is smaller and smaller each summer.
The North Pole isn’t mountainous like the South Pole, and the flat, endless stretch of white isn’t punctuated by any buildings or outposts. The occasional flag bearing the spot of a temporary north pole location might be spotted, and even signs of life. Beluga, orca, and narwhal whales can be spotted in the Arctic Circle, and you might even spot an arctic fox or a reindeer near the North Pole.
Is There Anything to Do There?
The “true” geographic North Pole isn’t particularly hospitable, but there are some places near the North Pole that people like to visit. The Christmas spirit is strong up north, and if you want to visit Santa’s workshop, the Finnish town of Rovaniemi is happy to welcome you. You can speak to St. Nick, see a reindeer farm, and enjoy all sorts of other Christmas-themed activities.
There aren’t too many places to stay, which is why most visitors to the North Pole are researchers, explorers, or affluent travelers who don’t mind spending thousands of dollars on elaborate tours and day cruises to see polar bears, ice floes, and other sights near the pole. A proper hike to the North Pole, however, would require a serious amount of equipment and a professional guide who has made the trek before.
The Arctic Circle is technically claimed by Russia, America (via Alaska), Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway and Sweden, so depending on what country you come through, you may be able to find some hot spring resorts (Russia and Sweden) and other accommodations along the trek north.
If you’re in the oil industry, then the Arctic presents a very intriguing possibility. Considering that at least 30% of the world’s oil reserves are in the Arctic, the past decade has shown a huge resurgence in exploration and interest in the region. This is worrying for environmental activists, so if you do visit the North Pole, or its surrounding areas, don’t be surprised to see tankers, exploratory vessels, or activists in canoes.
Finally, if you feel like braving the icy waters beneath the North Pole, you might see one final thing worth mentioning. In 2007, Russia planted a flag on the seabed of the North Pole, hoping that it would give them a stronger claim to oil and drilling rights. Environmental activists have planted their own flag as well, despite the fact that these gestures are largely symbolic.
The Arctic region is a fascinating and mysterious place, and if you ever get the chance, you should visit… just make sure you pick the right North Pole – apparently there are a few of them!